Sampling the San Francisco nightlife... by kayak

"It sounds like you have little kayaking experience," Sea Trek's program director told me on the phone. "That's good. The less you know, the better."

This guy was on the ball: he knew how to turn a lack of skill into an asset. Friends of mine had recently kayaked San Francisco Bay at night with Sausalito-based Sea Trek; the experience was, they said, an egalitarian adventure in which raw athleticism was pooh-poohed in favor of low-strain luxury. My kind of fun. But I was worried because I'd never set foot in a kayak. The program director was full of encouragement, especially after I asked whether we'd tip over and get sucked into some company's hydrocooling system or be munched on by sharks. Driving home the sale, he declared that the water, the moon, and the serenity blended into a powerful aphrodisiac called romance.

"Scratch romance," I said. "Just keep me afloat."

Tonight, our group of six landlubbers is setting forth on Sea Trek's five-hour tour, which includes paddling out at sunset, watching the San Francisco skyline come alive, dining at a waterside restaurant, and then returning to the water for several hours of stargazing.

But first we have basic training with guide Dave Talmo. He's about 35 years old, with a scraggly beard, kind eyes, and an easy smile. Dave doesn't mind that we goof on him when he demos the proper kayaking stroke by getting to his knees and paddling sand. We must be very smart, because when he is finished we have no questions. "You're very smart," Dave affirms.

Next, his fellow guide Mitch Powers provides a quick lesson about the boats. Mitch is big, strong, and serious. He shows us how to enter and exit a kayak without putting our feet through its $3,000 fiberglass hull. "Remember," he whispers solemnly, "you are sliding into eight thousand years of history, beginning with the Aleutians."

The land lesson takes about 45 minutes. We are assured that, despite what common sense tells us, these sleek aquatic darts are as untippable as Ohio. When the sun falls behind Mount Tam, our flotilla launches. I appoint myself captain of my craft and name my wife, Karen, first mate in good standing. (Karen's an E.R. doctor. Should a tsunami enter the bay and break us into little bits, she's capable of putting us back together again.) For the first several minutes we clack our paddles together as we struggle to synchronize strokes. "Get with the program, hon," I joke. Dave reminds me that Karen doesn't have eyes in the back of her head: "She can't see your stroke; you must adjust to hers."

For 10 minutes we zig and zag around Schoonmaker Point Marina, the inlet where Sea Trek is based. Mitch and Dave circle us like New York art critics evaluating a work of questionable value and taste. I have to admit they know their stuff. "To improve control," suggests Dave, "try putting your rudder in the water."

Embarking on a tour of Sausalito's harbor, we come to the massive, rotting Wapama, a turn-of-the-century ship that once transported lumber from the Pacific Northwest. It sits in dry-dock limbo while historians and port authorities decide whether it should be a museum or kindling. Coasting alongside its hull, Dave and Mitch slip effortlessly between the pier's pilings. "Come on, it's easy," Mitch calls to us. (In high school, Adam Friend once said the same thing to me, and I found myself diving under a moving train.) Once underneath, I bang my paddle against every piece of wood in the vicinity. Karen hits nothing, but our prow ricochets off the last piling.

"Uh, Karen's in charge of steering because she's in front, right?" I ask.

The next kayak, powered by the husband-and-wife team of Stig and Kelin Colberg, glides smoothly under the pier. He's a law student, and she's getting a master's in public health. The third holds Ray Paquette and Jon Oelschlaeger, senior executives at Ensemble Systems Corp., a computer consulting firm. Ray is the vice president of sales and marketing. He's in front, digging deep into the water and trying to move ahead. Jon, the cautious president, is applying the brakes without Ray's knowledge. "Way to go, men!" I cry. "Looking good!" I applaud whatever Ray and Jon do: they are my bosses.

Nature is beginning its fantastic transformation. The sky turns bright copper. Thin clouds, teased out like pieces of kinked yarn, look as if they have been injected with blood. The water has become the most amazing shade of lavender. "Am I in heaven?" Jon asks. "This is gorgeous," Kelin murmurs. Across the bay, San Francisco is winking with light. At dusk we head for deep water, but we must not venture too far into the open bay, because the receding tide is moving at seven knots. Even a strong guy like Mitch could be swept under the Golden Gate, and the next thing you know he's ordering egg rolls in China.

Someone blows his nose next to my ear. It's a tremendously wet sound, something from a Three Stooges film. I turn and find myself face-to-face with what looks like an earless Labrador. It's a harbor seal, checking out the happenings. Later, several California sea lions eye us from 50 yards away.

At nightfall we park our somewhat chilled selves in front of Margaritaville, a typical on-the-water joint with affordable food, a big bar, and a good view. Melissa, the waitress, materializes at our table to announce that appetizers have already been ordered. We raise a hearty cheer to her long life. "I'm a Sea Trek groupie," she confesses.

Margarita pitchers arrive with buffalo wings and chips, guacamole, and salsa. Toasts are raised to dry clothes and unflagging stamina. Our hands are so frozen it's hard to grip the glasses, but our bodies are warm. We must be good paddlers because Dave allows us two extra pitchers of margaritas, even though Sea Trek calls for a one-drink maximum per person. "We monitor KWI," warns Mitch. "Kayaking while intoxicated."

After dinner we head back to the water. The moon is a slender fingernail in the northwest. The only sound we hear is of slapping water. Tied to our kayaks are glow-in-the-dark sticks, without which we would lose one another.

Karen is silent except for an occasional happy sigh. Her paddle has grown dry on her lap. A mile away, the Golden Gate arches over the glassy bay. Ray knows most of the constellations, and as we lean back he identifies them. "I haven't looked up in a long time," he says.

An hour passes, maybe two. At some point Dave says it's time to return. No one wants to give up the peace. Our strokes slow to nothing as we draw toward land. Eventually the kayaks crunch against the sandy shore, but everyone stays seated, our eyes closed and heads tilted. We're trying to memorize the rhythm of the waves lapping against our hulls. We've been romanced.

Sea Trek Ocean Kayaking Center (Schoonmaker Point Marina, Sausalito; 415/488-1000) operates year-round, although April through October is considered high season. Three-hour starlight or moonlight paddles, which depart from Sausalito, run $60 per person; the five-hour evening dinner excursion to Margaritaville costs $80 per person (drinks not included). Sea Trek conducts many other trips, such as lunch paddles around Sausalito and water-and-hiking tours of nearby Angel Island, Tomales Bay, and the Muir Beach coastline ($50-$120).